Photo of Shakespeare & Company by Alexandre Duret-Lutz via a Creative Commons License
As you may be able to tell from the references to rice farming in my bio, I grew up in a really small town: 5,000 people, a handful of restaurants, two grocery stores, a one-screen movie theater, and two stoplights that only operated during school hours (after I moved away they put in one that operates 24 hours – you don’t know the excitement). And it’s not like this was a suburb. The nearest town, seven miles away, had a whopping 700 people. My hometown is the biggest town in a county that’s 3/4 the size of Rhode Island.
And because it was such a small town we didn’t have a bookstore. The closest one was a tiny mall store in a town 30 miles away that was invariably staffed by surly teenagers and very rarely had what young Nathan was looking for. I got by on the books my parents had bought for my older siblings, the armfuls I’d grab when the book fair came to town, and whatever they had at the local library.
Combine this with a generally pro-future attitude and I think you’ll see why my mind continues to be blown that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we now have access to pretty much every book you could ever want to read. You don’t even have to talk to a bored teenager to get them.
But don’t get me wrong – I love bookstores!! Love love love. I’m eternally grateful to Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, OR for introducing me to David Eddings, I loved my pilgrimage to Elliott Bay in Seattle, and I always stop by Borderlands in San Francisco whenever I’m looking for science fiction (especially if Ripley the hairless alien cat is in). Bookstores are hugely important, and I don’t want them to go away.
Much as Mike Shatzkin recently expressed in a recent post, I’m a bit torn between my love of e-books and my love of bookstores. Selfishly, I want the best of both worlds. I want the convenience of e-books without inadvertently killing off the places that host author readings, who nurture local talent, serve as community centers, and introduce readers to authors they might not have heard about otherwise.
Opinions vary on the extent to which we can have both worlds. Shatzkin sees the conflict between e-books and bookstores as essentially zero sum, in a comment on Shatzkin’s post Kassia Krozser of Booksquare says it’s not zero sum and they can coexist provided bookstores embrace both print and digital, and independent booksellers Christin Evans and Praveen Madan recently chided the press for treating the demise of bookstores as an inevitability rather than taking a hard look at the fact that, among other things, after 15 years independent booksellers combined have a digital market share of 0.1%.
There are definitely independent stores who have embraced the Internet (Powell’s comes to mind), and if publishers are able to control uniform pricing via the agency model, bookstores may be back to competing on consumer experience rather than pricing. Is this a digital environment in which physical stores could thrive if they embraced the Internet? Or do e-books just further erode the necessity of brick and mortar stores?
I don’t pretend to know for sure. Like any consumer, I want it all. I just hope I can get it. Right now I have my feet (and put my dollars) in both worlds. I wonder if that’s enough.